By Alex Chong Do Thompson
We’re reading Zen Kōans by Rev. Gyomay Kubose as part of my lay minister training. The class discussions have been challenging, insightful, and they’ve caused me to reflect on how kōans* have affected my practice through the years.
My deep love of kōans actually started before I was Buddhist. I have a B.A. in philosophy, and a large part of the curriculum was studying and writing papers on thought experiments like The Trolley Problem and The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The goal in these investigations was to stretch my reasoning abilities to the max, and force me to investigate the root cause of my ethical choices. These exercises planted the seed which allowed me to be open to kōan practice.
That being said, it has become clear to me over the years that kōans and thought experiments have very different goals.
The thought experiments worked to help strengthen my conceptual mind. In contrast, kōans work to help me see past it.
The way I work with kōans is fairly informal. When I read them on my own, I simply sit with each one for a while and search for what the deeper meaning might be. Other times, I don’t even do that. Instead, I read them, and enjoy the conversations from all those years ago. The word kōan has a very heavy, formal meaning these days, but I can see many of them being birthed from the notes and idle gossip of aspiring Zen students. In my mind, I imagine them sweeping temple floors, and trading stories about teachers they met, and turning words they heard over the years.
For me, kōans have never been about solving some great riddle or seeing through the fabric of space and time. They’ve been about catching a glimpse of the life of ancient Zen teachers (Joshu, Tozan, Nansen, etc.), and bearing witness to how they lived in the world.
In this way, they remind me that life itself is the most difficult kōan of all. How do I walk a spiritual path in a secular world? How do I build relationships with people who have different religious/ political views than me? How do I balance my checkbook?
As I continue to read and study Zen kōans, they give me insight into these questions. They assist me in hearing the sound of my inner wisdom during difficult times—and they help me know what to do.
*A kōan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice to provoke the “great doubt” and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak